GREENBACK, Tenn. — The third time was not the charm for South Pittsburg's football team.
For the third time in four seasons, the Pirates were turned away by Greenback at the doorstep of returning to the state championship game.
In a game with five lead changes, the host Cherokees rallied to score the go-ahead touchdown with 45 seconds remaining, then held on for the 27-26 win when the Pirates' desperation pass into the end zone fell incomplete as time expired in their Class 1A semifinal Friday night.
"We had our chances but couldn't make first downs when we could've taken control or put the game away," South Pittsburg coach Vic Grider said. "I've got to do a better job of getting first downs when we have those chances to put teams away."
Greenback (12-2) will face Lake County (14-0) in next Friday's championship game at Tennessee Tech University. Lake County won 30-20 against Huntingdon (13-1) in the other semifinal.
Both Greenback and South Pittsburg came into their latest meeting averaging more than 46 points per game this season, but it was the defenses that stood out, particularly in the first half.
The Cherokees used a 10-play, 66-yard drive to take a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter, but South Pittsburg (12-1) answered by scoring the next 20 points and appeared to be in control. After tying the game on a 30-yard scoring run by Jaylyn Hubbard, the Pirates took the lead late in the first half with a 90-yard drive capped by Brett Nelson's 8-yard touchdown run. That drive was set up when the Pirates held Greenback on downs at their 10.
Hubbard, who stepped in at quarterback for Brayden Sanders after the 1,000-yard passer was lost for the season with a broken collarbone in the quarterfinals, opened the second half with his second touchdown run of the game, this time covering 27 yards for a 20-7 lead one minute into the third quarter.
Hubbard finished with 13 carries for 131 yards, and Mr. Football finalist Ronto Tipton added 117 on 11 carries.
The Pirates appeared to have stopped the Cherokees on the ensuing drive, but a penalty for pass interference gave the hosts new life and they capitalized with a 1-yard scoring run by Mr. Football finalist Holden Willis.
After stopping South Pittsburg on fourth-and-2, Greenback reclaimed the lead at 21-20 when Willis Hauled in a 54-yard touchdown pass from Braden Carnes. Willis finished with nine catches for 184 yards and two touchdowns, breaking the state's single-season record with 28.
South Pittsburg's defense came up with its second stand inside its 10 late in the third quarter, which opened the door for a lengthy drive to retake the lead at 26-21 on Cameron Trussell's 1-yard run midway through the fourth.
Tipton stepped in front of a Carnes pass for an interception at the Pirates' 32 with 4:06 to go, but the Cherokees forced the Pirates to punt. Greenback then set off on a 54-yard touchdown drive, capped by a 3-yard pass from Carnes to Duke Stinnett on third down.
South Pittsburg has not played for the title since losing to Union City in the 2013 final. The Pirates won the most recent of their five state championships in 2010.
"Our kids played their guts out," Grider said. "We gave ourselves a chance to win at a really tough place to play, but we just couldn't put it away."